Dizzy Gillespie – the Musician and the Man

June 8, 2015

As the title of a new book makes clear, Dizzy Gillespie is a legend in the world of jazz. Even now, more than twenty years after his death, he still makes news. In part, this is because of the publication of this book, a personal recollection by Dave Usher, and also, importantly if barely believably, the first release of previously unheard music played by him more than four decades ago. Well, not literally unheard, because the content of four albums from Consolidated Artists Productions/Red Anchor Productions comes from an engagement at London’s most famous jazz club back in 1973 and hence those who were lucky enough to be in attendance heard it back then. For most of us, however, it is new; not only that, it is music that is as vital and as immediate as it must have been back then. Gillespie’s quintet had been on tour in Europe for about a month and this was to end with a two-week engagement at Ronnie Scott’s venue in Soho. Supporting the man, who was then being labeled as ‛the world’s greatest trumpet player’ by Ronnie Scott himself, were pianist Mike Longo, guitarist Al Gafa, electric bassist Earl May, and drummer Mickey Roker. In the course of the two weeks at the Frith Street club (extended by a further week with a handshake deal between Gillespie and Scott that gave the visitor a share of the profits) some outstanding music was played. It was decided that it should be recorded and so it was (by Peter Bould), and now we can all share in this magical music.

Dizzy Gillespie Live At Ronnie Scott’s Volumes 1-4 (CAP 1040, 1042, 1043, 1044)

This music extends over four CDs and includes some numbers for which Gillespie was well known: A Night In Tunisia, Birk’s Works, Oop-Pop-A-Da and Manteca. There are also several fine examples of the composing skills of long-serving sideman Longo, among them Sunshine, I Told You So, Alligator, The Truth and Mike’s Samba. At this time, Gafa also wrote extensively for the group’s book although only Behind A Moonbeam is heard here.dee gee 1 There are very good solos from Gafa, May, and Roker. Among Gafa’s fluid moments are his contributions to Timet, Olé For The French Gypsies, Mike’s Samba, and I Told You So. May’s solos include Oop-Pop-A-Da and Kush, and here as well as in support, he brings the electric bass much closer to the sound of its acoustic forebear than do most other players of this instrument. Roker also has moments in the spotlight, notably on Manteca, although he primarily provides rock-solid support and throughout displays the skills that brought him the admiration and respect of Gillespie and other leaders. Encouraged by Gillespie, Longo is heard often with extended solos, for example on Sunshine, The Truth (with Gillespie’s spoken introduction in which he takes to task the writer of an ill-informed newspaper review), and The Matrix, the last named being another of the pianist’s compositions.dee gee 2 All this said, it is of course the leader who is the ever-sparkling star turn. In his mid-fifties at the time, Gillespie’s inventiveness, imagination, power and command are in evidence with every note he plays and while labels such as that delivered by Scott can be more than a little hyperbolic, it is impossible to make a sensible counter-claim. Brimful of ideas, wit, intelligence, technical brilliance, and unstoppable vitality, Gillespie makes this experience as vibrant and as exhilarating today as it was forty-plus years ago.

The late Alan Plater (prolific playwright, jazz enthusiast, and a regular at Ronnie Scott’s) took the title of one of his radio plays from a remark made by Joe Harriott when he first played with Dizzy Gillespie.dee gee 4dee gee 3 During the first few bars Harriott and others were wondering what was so special, but then Gillespie stepped forward and played a solo of such extraordinary brilliance that, as Harriott expressed it, he and the rest of the musicians were left like ‛swallows on the water’. Hearing this music today it’s possible to understand what Joe (and Alan) meant. This is an invaluable record of an outstanding musician, well-packaged and complete with first-rate liner notes by Doug Ramsey and must surely be eagerly sought by many.

Now to the book:

Music Is Forever: Dizzy Gillespie, the Jazz Legend, and Me by Dave Usher with Berl Falbaum (Red Anchor Productions – ISBN 978-0-692-21110-6).

For some, the name of the author will be familiar as he played a significant role in the 1950s in Detroit, producing records by artists including Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. But before that he was a jazz fan and while still at school he saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie when the trumpeter was a member of Billy Eckstine’s bebop-based big band. He struck up a friendship with Gillespie, one that lasted until Gillespie’s death almost fifty years later.dee gee book Along the way, Usher formed the Emanon record label, releasing 78s made in Paris by a Kenny Clarke band including Gillespie, later collaborated in the start-up of the trumpeter’s own record company, Dee Gee, and also sometimes traveled with him on international tours. Mainly anecdotal (and given the number of already-published books on Gillespie all the better for that), Usher’s recollections cover in close, personal detail many aspects of Gillespie, among them his religious beliefs, his stand on racial, political and environmental issues, and, of course, matters musical. The latter includes Dave’s accounts of his work as A&R man with Dee Gee and Chess (where, he artists including recorded James Moody and Ahmad Jamal), as well as the many hours of tapes he recorded during Gillespie’s 1956 State Department tour of Brazil. Some of the music from this tour was released on the same label in a 3-volume set in 1999 (and it appears that there is still much to be disseminated). This is an entertaining read and adds color and texture to the portrait all jazz fans have in their minds of a remarkable musician and man.

These albums and the book, which is also available as an eBook (ISBN-978-0-692-21113-3), are available from the usual sources, including, of course, Amazon.

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